Sodium Doesn’t Just Fall From the Sky

Who should be accountable for the apparent accident that led to five people being burned by sodium on Thursday, Sept. 6? If MIT community members left sodium metal next to the Charles River, they should claim responsibility for their actions. If no responsible party can be found, the Institute should still help the people who have been hurt.

It is by no means certain that MIT’s fraternity rush or Orientation had anything to do with the sodium found. It is up to the state police, not the student newspaper, to determine whether someone from MIT was responsible for these sodium-related injuries. But since the metal was found along the Boston bank of the Charles River near the Back Bay neighborhood which is home to many MIT fraternities, and since at least two sodium drops were held in the week before the accident, it is not unreasonable to say that MIT students are most likely accountable for the incident.

The traditional East Campus-run Sodium Drop, attended by hundreds annually, is probably not to blame. The Tech has reported that at least one other drop was likely held a few days before the sodium fire, by the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity; TEP representatives have refused to talk about the event to The Tech, doubtless for good liability reasons.

Most students who organize large-scale events with potential hazards, like Sodium Drop and Orange Tours, exercise extreme caution; and the annual student-run Sodium Drop has occurred for years without causing any injuries. MIT officials and police have in the past implicitly endorsed the annual Sodium Drop by turning a blind eye to it. The Tech, Wikipedia, and MIT’s own Admissions blogs have mentioned the event for years. Institute attempts to ban this tradition would not measurably improve safety.

What the Institute should do is encourage those who have failed to ensure their sodium experiment’s safety to step up and take responsibility for their actions. More than that, though, MIT should exercise discretion in its discipline process; if it were well-known that community members would not receive excessive sanctions for admitting a part in this accident, MIT might be more likely to get the truth and to achieve what should be its ultimate goal — ensure that people act more safely in the future.

Finally, MIT itself should act on its responsibility to our surrounding community. If the people responsible for the sodium fire cannot be identified, MIT should err on the side of taking too much blame and should volunteer to help the burn victims from the Charles River Clean Up Boat volunteers and emergency responders. The Institute, which has donated to the Clean Up Boat effort in all four years of that organization’s existence, should cover the costs of medical treatment and pay to make the boat seaworthy again.

Where the Institute helps the world­ — in research and community leadership — we take the credit. Now, when it seems that our culture has hurt the surrounding community, MIT should shoulder the blame. When faced with a choice between helping our neighbors, or ignoring them, MIT’s choice should be clear.